Building a responsive website using Drupal

Five years ago I very much doubt if we would have considered an open source web content management system (CMS). About a year and a half ago that all changed as we looked to find a replacement for our existing proprietary CMS, feeling that the time had come to find an alternative which would give us the flexibility to develop and design websites ourselves. We chose to trial the use of Drupal, an open source platform, built, used, and supported by an active and diverse community of people around the world.

When we started our journey with Drupal we had just achieved fours stars in the SOCITM Better Connected Review. So why did we consider this fundamental change at this time? Well, we wanted the freedom to develop and change our website to meet ever changing requirements and public expectations. The biggest driver initially was to allow us to develop a fully responsive website to meet our residents ever increasing need for mobile access. We developed a separate mobile site, which partly meets the demand – http://m.bracknell-forest.gov.uk/home but we now really to provide a single website which can be accessed from any given device.

Use of Bracknell Forest Council's website by device
Bracknell Forest Council website: usage by device – (2015 – 2016) : desktop – 49%, mobile – 31.3%, tablet – 19.8%.

Mobile usage of the Bracknell Forest Council website has been increasing to a point where mobile and desktop use is greater month on month than desktop use. The pie chart shows the annual split between mobile, tablet and desktop usage. Over 50% of people now choose not to use a desktop PC or laptop to access our public website. In some months the split has been even greater and I anticipate that this will continue to grow.

Developing a responsive website needs to go beyond building websites that adapt to all screen sizes. In a recent article Dan Gardner and Mike Treff talked of the need to consider developing a ‘responsive philosophy’ as today ‘users expect online experiences that not only respond to what device they’re using, but also their location, time of day, what they’ve already read and events happening in real time’. (see http://m.fastcodesign.com/3036091/the-next-big-thing-in-responsive-design). This concept throws up all sorts of opportunities which we’d like to explore further, but equally a wide range of constraints, particularly relating to the flexibility of a CMS to meet these new expectations.

Changing the presentation of a website to meet changing requirements and needs cannot always be easily sorted in CMS which will generally use a limited number of fixed templates. Over the last few years design and usability wisdom has suggested that websites uniformly present content simply and consistently – to try to make the experience simpler and more intuitive. I fully subscribe to this view, but I also think that it can make the experience a little dull and repetitive. Government websites need to focus on simplicity and pare down unnecessary navigation and design to encourage users not only to view the content that they present but to engage and transact.

But does one size fit all in terms of design in government websites? I am starting to have my doubts about this. So I am currently working on a different approach which offers more flexibility in terms of design, but one which keeps the customer as the main focus and fully considers usability. Our new council website will be designed to provide a consistent journey, but include some flexibility on presentation to add visual interest and help to sell those services that need to be actively marketed (such as Leisure).

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